Day in and day out, we as sound engineers use the tools of the trade so that the message is delivered: whether that is in music or spoken word. Very rarely do most of us think about how those tools are put together, and how they work. Learning how these tools work on the component level will connect for us gaps in the knowledge of our craft, and give us an edge in all that we do.
For Part 1 of this series, we are going to start with pure awesomeness - MICROPHONES!
The First Microphone:
It is said that the sincerest form of flattery is imitation, and the microphone is no exception. A microphone is a man-made ear. Then with the ability to place this "ear" anywhere on any instrument, makes the microphone extremely useful.
Its sensitivity is pretty amazing at less than 1 billionth of atmospheric pressure. It can take up to 119db without making you go "ouch."
If you think in these terms (a microphone is just an ear), this will help you in placing the microphone in the right spot on any instrument. No longer will you be just shooting in the dark of where to place a mic where it sounds the best, but rather you can physically place your ear near an instrument (not recommended for snare drums - use common sense) and find the sweet spot, and then place the microphone in the same place. You can reasonably do this in the studio with a pair of headphones and a good boom stand totally loosened with a microphone on the end of it. Find the best spot on the instrument with this method; while the musician is playing, and you got it!
For more on this, you should research musical instrument vibrational modes, and how standing waves affect them. Then take that to circular membrane vibrational modes - and then apply all of this knowledge even further to drum mic placement, wind instrument microphone placement, strings, etc - This will take your microphone placement prowess through the roof - now back on topic:
The First Man-Made Microphone
The carbon microphone is credited in modern times, as the first microphone developed. Even though Thomas Edison was awarded the patent for it, it was this dude that actually invented it:
A bunch of his bros were like, "Dude, you could make some money on this deal." But, Mr. Hughes wanted to give it to the world as a gift. That's when things got really awesome because then back in the day we had this fella here:
And then another dude had the idea: Whoa, I wonder what would happen if I took the carbon microphone out of one of those old telephones and rigged it like a studio mic? Or better yet, the ear piece to make it even more lo-fi!
But then, engineers became super lazy. No more did they really care about mic technique (like choosing the best microphone for the source) - so they leaned on the most overused tool in audio:
The ribbon microphone was invented by Walter Schottky (also contributed to the vacuum tube, the schottky diode, and the ribbon speaker) & Erwin Gerlach around 1922. On a side note: "That dude's 'stache is like, like, like soooooo offensive, OMG." There is no way he could rock that nowadays; because some whiney goofball from mamby pamby land would inevitably sue him for offensive facial hair, and then the supreme court would make sure all men (and grandmas) never rock that mustache again by forcing Mr. Schottky to pay out a large sum for mental anguish! Ha!
There are now (as you probably know) more modern designs of ribbons with phantom powered preamp circuits built into the mic case to enhance frequency response (Royer comes to mind here), but the majority of ribbon microphones should be handled gently with the above mentioned in mind...so be careful!
The benefit of dynamic microphones, are that they are very durable, and can take allot of decibels (some immeasurable). They are also less sensitive to stage noise, and are super resilient to humidity changes, and abuse. I have seen old SM-58's that appeared as if someone attached it to the end of a Roto-Rooter, ran over it with a belt sander, and used it as a makeup applicator, and it was still sounding fine.
Stay tuned for the next installment of our Nuts & Bolts series where we dive in deep to Condenser Microphones AKA Capacitor Microphones.
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